What Is Justin Amash Thinking?

Congressman Justin Amash has a penchant for going his own way. He is one of the few unwavering critics in either party of government mass surveillance programs and forever wars under the guise of “protecting the homeland.” He was the lone Republican in Congress to conclude that President Trump had engaged in impeachable crimes when he tried to obstruct the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. When his fellow Republicans ripped him for daring to criticize the president, Amash quit the Republican Party, a decision that catapulted him to political celebrity and made for a strange #resistance hero, liberal Democrats and independents swooning over a libertarian who reads Hayek in his free time.

After months of carefully worded hints to suggest he was considering whether to take his message to the national stage, Amash said Tuesday that he’d taken the “first step” toward a presidential bid on the Libertarian Party ticket. His announcement and a new website outline a vision heavy on values and light on hard policies. He wants to “put an end to cronyism,” restore a government that “secures our rights” and “recognizes its limits.” Amash says he’d be “an honest, principled president who will defend the Constitution and put individuals first.”

The obvious question is: Why is Amash doing this? And what does he hope to achieve?

You can find clues to Amash’s thinking in various interviews he’s given over the past year. (An aide to Amash did not immediately respond to a request to interview the congressman.) Last fall, he told Rolling Stone that he hadn’t ruled out the possibility of running for president and was weighing where he thought he could make the most impact. He was adamant that if he would only run for president if he thought he could win: “If I were to run for president, that’s not something I would do unless I felt very confident I could win it. And so if you were to see me get into the race it means that I’m confident I can win the race.”

This is how all smart and ambitious politicians talk. No one decides to run for president thinking they don’t have a shot, however slim. And Amash’s chances are slim.

Amash’s decision to seek the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination makes all the sense in the world. He believes in free-market economics, civil liberties, and limited government. He opposes the surveillance state just as fiercely as he opposes most spending by the federal government. (He says more authority should rest with the states.) Friends and colleagues reach for words like “purist” and “doctrinaire” to describe him; his office gives out free copies of the 1850 libertarian ur-text The Law by Frédéric Bastiat; the small-government group FreedomWorks rates his voting record as one of the best in Congress.

If he does run, Amash will also surely point to his opposition to Trump and decision to ditch the Republican Party. The move cost him his seniority, access to the GOP’s fundraising apparatus, and surely some relationships in Congress. And even though he still votes with the Republican majority a lot of the time, he remains perhaps the most high-profile member of his former party to voice his discontent with the president’s behavior and then act on that discontent.

But is there anywhere close to a big enough constituency for Amash’s brand of politics that could deliver him a single state on the electoral map, let alone the presidency? The district he represents in West Michigan is in a lot of ways a microcosm of the state, a purple-ish blend of urban and rural communities with a good deal of economic and racial diversity. Amash has won the district five times in a row, fending off Republican primary challengers and Democratic general-election opponents.

But the math isn’t there on a national stage. The Libertarian Party’s membership is paltry. The most electoral support a Libertarian presidential candidate has ever received was former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s 4.48 million votes in the 2016 election. That’s nothing to scoff at, but it’s nowhere near enough to win the presidency.

Based on what little data there is available, Amash’s entry into the race would potentially peel more votes away from likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden than Trump. A 2019 poll by the Detroit News found that Amash siphoned 6 points away from Biden when he was added to the presidential ticket as opposed to a two-way Biden-Trump race. After the 2016 election, Catalist, a Democratic analytics firm, conducted a long-term analysis to understand the American electorate based on values and attitudes as opposed to demographics and voting history. The largest slice of the electorate, the analysis found, was the “Libertarian left,” which was made up of mainly young white voters that resisted labels and being told what to do.

Recent history is littered with libertarian figures trying (and failing) to build a real political movement. Every four years, it seems, some magazine writes about how libertarianism is poised to have its “moment.” Four years of Trump and system failures in Washington may not usher in the first libertarian president, but perhaps they’ve created the conditions for a candidate like Amash to expand the reach of libertarian politics and mobilize the ranks of disaffected voters. In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year, Amash said he believed there was a large constituency of voters out there who don’t follow the daily ins and outs of politics, but who were searching for a candidate with integrity and principles in an era when those qualities feel hard to come by. “What they really take away from their elected officials is: ‘Can I trust this person? Does this seem like a person who is standing up for convictions or is this person just bowing to political pressure all the time?’” Amash told me.

And for Amash, principles are everything. “My gratification comes from being true to the principles that I speak about,” he told me last year. “At the end of the day, if I feel like I stuck to my principles, I go home happy.” Amash may run for president and fail miserably, but if he felt like doing so was the only way to uphold his principles, he’ll go home happy.

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